Sakura
3:25 pm
Tue May 20, 2014

Japanese Cherry Trees Harken Back To Darker Times At UW

One of the 30 young cherry trees the University of Washington dedicated in a ceremony on Tuesday.
Credit KUOW Photo/Bond Huberman

In a ceremony on Tuesday morning, the University of Washington dedicated more than 30 young cherry trees, gifts from Japan.

The trees recognize the 120-year history between Japan and the university and are also a nod from Japan to the “strength and dedication” of Japanese and Japanese American students who were excluded from the university under internment during World War II.

Not mentioned during the ceremony was the key role of a University of Washington professor in the internment of Japanese-Americans at 10 camps on the West Coast.

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, a demographer in the sociology department turned over closely-guarded Census data to the government to decide who to intern. What made the professor’s decision even more dramatic was that he worked down the hall from Frank Miyamoto, a friend and colleague who was ultimately interned.

Graduation portrait of University of Washington sociologist Frank Miyamoto
Credit Columns Magazine Photo

Miyamoto was the first Japanese American hired at the University of Washington in 1941.

“Given the anti-Japanese sentiment that prevailed throughout the 1930s, 1920s, 1910s, it’s amazing I was able to get any kind of employment,” Miyamoto, a sociologist, recalled in a 2010 interview. He died in 2012; he was 100.

Miyamoto was living with his sister and mother in Seattle’s International District when he heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. As he listened to the New York Symphony play a piece by Beethoven, the program was interrupted with news of the bombing.

A more recent photograph of Frank Miyamoto. He was 100 when he died in 2012.
Credit Columns Magazine Photo

“I wondered Monday morning when I went back to campus what kind of reception I would get from the students I was teaching,” Miyamoto said. “Remarkably, my recollection is that students clapped their hands when I walked in.”

But the government was less sympathetic. As winter thawed into spring, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that began the process of removing the Japanese, including second-generation nisei like Miyamoto.

Army officials turned to Calvin Schmid, Miyamoto’s colleague and executive secretary of the Washington State Census Board, for help.

Schmid agreed to turn over data to identify where Japanese Americans were living. He drew the north-south line that determined which Japanese would be sent to one of 10 internment camps. The line followed Highway 97, sequestering western Washington, Oregon, California and southern Arizona.

Miyamoto and his wife Michiko quickly left the university. Meantime, sociology undergraduate Gordon Hirabayashi refused internment and was convicted of violating curfew. The government wouldn’t pay his way to the Arizona prison where he was sentenced to serve 90 days of hard labor, so he hitchhiked. He slept in ditches along the way. 

Calvin Schmid, the registrar for Washington state Census data, kept track of minority groups.
Credit University of Washington Libraries

In his 2010 interview, Miyamoto provided a generous explanation for Schmid’s decision to help the Army.

“Yes, he gave data, and pulled data together, which was part of the work of apprehending the people who were in certain areas,” Miyamoto said. But, “He was very careful to make sure that people who were not in areas subject to evacuation according to these orders wouldn’t be evacuated.”

Stewart Tolnay, a demographer at the university, believes Schmid obtained confidential information from the Census bureau, which he then shared with the Defense Department.

“Individual-level and household-level data from U.S. Censuses is embargoed for 72 years,” Tolnay said by email. “At the time that Schmid was doing this work, the average person had access only to volumes published by the Census Bureau. I am quite sure that those data are not what Schmid used.”